Every single pro athlete dreams of achieving greatness somehow. For many, it’s through a long career, numerous records and championships, a true team player who can achieve greatness as part of a unit. However, Halls of Fame are filled with guys with amazing careers yet, to most fans, their names mostly forgettable and not standing out as much as true superstars do. Do most Red Sox fans know every member of their 2004 World Championship team? Maybe not but they all remember Bill Buckner for that terrible error. It’s a shame but how it often is.
Then there are those athletes who are famous for just one moment. One moment in a single game or match that pushed them to massive prominence, far more than many of those long-term successful careers. It’s not always a moment, it can be a great season amid rough stuff and a so-so overall career. In some cases, it’s a moment of glory that elevated them to being a hero for the fans. Other times, it’s pretty much all they have, one single flash of greatness before vanishing into the background. Some come early on and they can never live up to that potential while other times it’s the tail end of an otherwise so-so career. Here are twenty athletes famous (or infamous) for one play or game, in some cases ones they’ll cherish forever no matter how fleeting that fame could be.
20 Tom Cheney
It’s interesting how so many records in sports are held by players whose overall career aren’t very notable. Such a case is Tom Cheney. Playing just eight seasons for a couple of teams, Cheney had an overall record of 19-29 and an ERA of 3.77, not exactly Hall of Fame numbers. However, on September 12, 1962, while playing for the Washington Senators, Cheney pitched the game of a lifetime, lasting 16 innings against the Baltimore Orioles and striking out 21 players, a record that still stands today.
19 Carlos Newton
One of the pioneers of MMA, Newton helped popularize the triangle choke and push MMA as a legitimate sport. He competed in various places like Pride FC but his biggest moment came in 2001 when he won the UFC welterweight championship from Pat Miletich. It was a huge moment that seemed to push Newton as a major star, but in his very first defense against Matt Hughes at UFC 34, he was knocked unconscious in a big slam against the cage and the ref stopped the fight to award Hughes the belt.
18 Bob Beamon
The term “Beamonesque” began to appear in the 1970s, meant to describe a feat that seemed incredible and nearly impossible to duplicate. It’s notable the term originates with a man whose overall track and field career wasn’t that spectacular. A good star in college, Beamon still wasn’t that notable as he prepared for the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Preparing for the long jump, Beamon took off and landed it at 29 feet and two and a half inches, breaking the set world record by nearly two feet. It easily won him the gold medal and attention internationally.
17 Tracy Porter
A track-and-field star in high school, Porter moved onto football where he set himself apart at Indiana with a record number of interceptions. Drafted by the New Orleans Saints, he only played five games before injuring his wrist. He did better in 2009 as his interceptions helped the Saints win the NFC Championship for a Super Bowl run.
16 Denny McLain
Few careers in history have seen such a spectacular rise and fall as McLain. In 1968, his fifth year in the majors, he won 31 games, a record that still stands, earning himself the Cy Young and MVP awards and led the Detroit Tigers to the World Series championship. He seemed ready for a long and great career with his amazing fastball but his personal life soon caused him to collapse. His arrogance rubbed fans the wrong way, he earned multiple suspensions for gambling and packing a gun and his game fell apart majorly.
15 Rulon Gardner
Raised on a farm in Wyoming, Gardner was a beefy kid who had learning disabilities but got into wrestling as an outlet. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Gardner was an afterthought in the Greco-Roman wrestling category but soon found himself facing off against Aleksander “The Great” Karelin, a three-time Gold medalist considered the best wrestler on the planet. To the shock of the world, Gardner managed to pin Karelin and deal the Russian legend his first loss in 13 years.
14 Bucky Dent
If you’ve lived in Boston over the last 30 years, you’d know him better as “Bucky F---ING Dent.” Having blown a 15 game lead in the AL East race, the Red Sox found themselves in a one-game playoff against the New York Yankees, the team prepared for the big guns like Reggie Jackson and Thurman Mason. What the Red Sox never expected was that the fatal blow would be made by a guy who had been a so-so batter for his entire career.
13 Tom Dempsey
That Dempsey got to the NFL at all is astounding given he was born without toes on his right foot and no fingers on his right hand. He persevered, using a special boot to become a placekicker and doing well at that job. On November 8, 1970, his New Orleans Saints were down against the Detroit Lions with no time left as Dempsey came to kick an impossible field goal. Hauling back, Dempsey booted the ball, a 63-yarder right through the goalposts with a few feet to spare, a NFL record.
12 Tim Tebow
Today, his name comes up with the idea of him being someone who managed to con football fans into thinking he was the next Montana or Elway. However, it should be remembered Tebow really was skilled, the first college sophomore to win the Heisman and helping the Florida Gators to a National Championship. Signed to the Denver Broncos, he showed some stuff in the late part of 2010 but it was 2011 he blossomed as the team was 1-4 when Kyle Orton went out to injury and Tebow took over.
11 Leon Spinks
His overall record is 26 wins and 17 losses but it’s one win that defined his career. On February 15th, 1978, Spinks faced off against Muhammad Ali, aged but still a dominant heavyweight champion. Ali has admitted to taking the fight too easily as Spinks came out hard and, in a massive upset, beat Ali in a 15-round split decision to win the title.
10 Johnny Vander Meer
There is one record in baseball that most say with confidence will never be broken and probably never matched: Throwing back-to-back no-hitters. That prize belongs to Vander Meer, who on July 11, 1938, as part of the Cincinnati Reds, tossed a no-hitter against the Boston Braves. Four days later, in the very first night game at Ebbets Field, Vander Meer threw another no-hitter to beat the Dodgers. It was a sensational feat, one that no one has come close to matching and more remarkable given how it belonged to a man whose lifetime record had more losses than wins.
9 David Tyree
It’s the play that Patriots fans still grouse over. It was all set, the capper to the perfect season, the Patriots to steamroll over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII and become the first team to finish 19-0. But the Giants played harder than anyone expected, pushing the Patriots to the limit and soon holding them tight as time clicked down. With 1:15 left and New England up 14-10, it looked like it was over as the Patriots closed in on Eli Manning, who managed to avoid a seemingly sure-fire sack to toss the ball high.
8 Frank McCool
After time in the minor leagues and then to serve in the Army, McCool signed as a free agent for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1944. He soon became one of the best single-season goaltenders in the team’s history, leading the Maple Leafs to a 50-point season, with McCool himself getting a 3.22 goals against average that improved to 2.23 in the playoffs.
7 Don Larsen
His win loss record is 81-91 with a 3.78 ERA, not exactly the stellar numbers of a New York Yankees icon. Yet Larsen still holds the honor of being the only man in history to throw a perfect game in the World Series. In 1956, the Yankees faced their old rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers with the Series tied at two games apiece. Taking the mound on October 8th, Larsen put on a pitching clinic, needing only 97 pitches total and Pee Wee Reese the only Dodger to get more than two balls counted against him and Jackie Robinson the only guy to get close to a hit.
6 Jeremy Lin
Ah, “Linsanity.” For a few weeks in 2012, the 6-foot-3 player was being talked of as the next mega-star in the NBA. After a so-so start with the Golden State Warriors, Lin was signed by the New York Knicks and in early 2012, erupted with fantastic play, several triple-double games, 38 points against the Lakers and a three-pointer with no time left to give the Knicks a win over the Raptors.
5 Bill Mazeroski
To his peers, Mazeroski was one of the best second basemen of his time, an 8-time Golden Gloves winner. Many an opposing player complained that a shot that should have been an easy base hit against anyone else turned into an out thanks to Mazeroski’s quick speed and amazing throw. It’s thus highly ironic that the man is revered as a Pittsburgh Pirates icon (complete with statue outside PNC Park) not for any of his years with a glove but one single moment with a bat.
4 Doug Flutie
There’s many a case of a college star who didn’t do as well in the pros and Doug Flutie has to rank high on that list. A star for Boston College, Flutie led his squad against the Miami Hurricanes on November 23rd, 1984, BC given little chance. The game was a high-scoring affair going back and forth with the Hurricanes taking the lead with only 20 seconds remaining.
3 Timmy Smith
It’s still one of the more baffling cases of a guy vanishing after a huge outing in NFL history. Drafted in the fifth round of the 1987 draft by the Washington Redskins, Smith had an okay but not spectacular year with the team as they went 11-4 to reach Super Bowl XXII against the Denver Broncos. Amid the play, Smith suddenly exploded with two touchdown runs and 204 yards rushing, still the most by a single player in any Super Bowl.
2 James “Buster” Douglas
It’s easy to forget how dominating a force Mike Tyson was in his prime. With his brutal fistwork and slamming blows, the man was a force of nature in the ring with bouts that often lasted just a minute and it seemed no one could stop him. It was believed by many that Tyson could very well retire undefeated as few seemed able to stand up to him, let alone a massive challenge. When Tyson faced James “Buster” Douglas in early 1990, his victory seemed so assured that Las Vegas betters didn’t even bother putting the bout on any lines.
1 Bobby Thomson
Down 13 and a half games in August of 1951, the New York Giants went on a sensational run that ended up catching up to the Brooklyn Dodgers and tying up the National League pennant. A three-game playoff was held with the teams splitting the two games, the third at the Polo Grounds with Brooklyn carrying a 4-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth. Despite the Giants having two men on base, a Dodgers victory was so assured that the team was already handing out World Series press credentials. With Bobby Thomson coming up to bat, Dodgers manager Chuck Dressen, in the move he would be criticized for the rest of his life over, decided to have Ralph Branca be the reliever, despite the fact that Branca had given up a homer to Thomson in the first game of the series.
Branca went up and pitched, Thomson swinging to hit “the Shot Heard Round the World,” a three-run homer that won the Giants the pennant. The Polo Grounds erupted as did all of New York and millions watching on television, Thomson hailed as an instant hero carried about by his teammates and doing curtain calls before the joyful crowd. While he had a decent career, Thomson never quite reached the same heights of success. But for that one October day, he was on top of the world for most still consider the greatest moment in baseball history.
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